Monday, January 30, 2012

A Midwinter Night's Dream from Canton Symphony Orchestra

A Midwinter Night’s Dream from the Canton Symphony Orchestra
By Tom Wachunas

The history of Western orchestral music is replete with works that have reverberated far beyond the concert hall to become practically ubiquitous cultural fixtures. Among those, Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons ranks high on the list, particularly with the fourth in that set of violin concertos, "Winter," which opened the January 28 concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Umstattd Hall. For many, the work is so familiar, and heard in so many contexts (from elevators and malls to television commercials and doctors’ waiting rooms), that it has become something of a musical banality. But the CSO reading of the work was a delightful reminder of just how deeply engaging the piece really is.

CSO violinist Emily Cornelius’ performance intensity and technical bravura were riveting, and invested the work with a truly invigorating lyricism. Her tonal range was a seamless blend of silken delicacy and velvety muscularity, and always in fine balance with the orchestra (pared down to 15 pieces here). Together, orchestra and soloist brought palpable life to Vivaldi’s poetic/pictorial notations for the work, particularly in moments such as pizzicato strings suggesting mincing steps on brittle ice, or trudging through shivery cold winds.

Second on the program was Prokofiev’s "Lieutenant Kije Suite," a five-movement work that the composer developed from his score for the 1933 film released in the U.S. under the title The Czar Wants Sleep. The film was a skewering of Czarist bluster and a biting satire on inept military bureaucracy. Befitting the story line of Czarist commanders inventing the exploits of a non-existent lieutenant (only to kill him off in the end), the music is largely a charming foray into both insouciant joviality and mock-gravitas, and all robustly Russian in flavor.

The featured guest artist for this work was Daniel Boye, whose crisp, sonorous baritone brought just the right melding of soaring bravado and ponderous, ironic melancholy to the proceedings – an operatic panache that was spicy, but not overly aggressive. Similarly, the orchestra put forth a fully unified understanding of the work’s loopy drama and plucky mischief, from the mournful failed romance played out in the second movement, the comedic majesty of newfound love in the third (Kije’s Wedding), through the familiar, frolicking music of the brisk sleigh ride (Troika) in the fourth, and bittersweet funereal mood of the finale. The work ended as it began, with a somber, haunting off-stage solo trumpet fanfare that, again ironically, flavored the work with a sense of ethereal pomp.

What would a CSO concert be without Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann positing a humorous observation or two with the audience? True to form, before the final work on the program – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor (“Winter Dreams”) – Zimmermann held up the hefty score and proposed that composer must have at one time visited Northeast Ohio. Tchaikovsky’s programmatic notes for the second movement characterize it as “gloomy land, misty land.” This elicited hearty laughs from the audience all too acquainted with the miserable vagaries of Ohio winters.

What followed, not surprisingly, was a full-blown marvel of orchestral precision under Zimmermann’s fluid baton, drawing out all the mesmerizing textures, moods, and and explosive passion that makes Tchaikovsky so…Tchaikovsky. That would include the particularly authoritative resonance of the brass section and its dynamic interplay with the sweetly piercing warmth of the wind instruments. That warmth would in turn blossom into relentlessly increasing heat during the final movement. To call the finale “a lengthy coda” (as did Kenneth C. Viant in his very thorough program notes) is something of an understatement. This fourth movement is a phenomenon in itself, wherein cumulative orchestral crescendos are paraded like so many repeated aural exclamation points. Here, the orchestra rose to the occasion with unflagging energy throughout.

Considering how Tchaikovsky’s nerve-shattering struggle to complete his first symphony nearly drove him to clinical insanity, it’s not unreasonable to imagine how he might have wanted this triumphal climax to last something close to forever, propelling him into Allegro vivo Nirvana, so to speak. In any event, judging from the thunderous applause, this masterful and exuberant performance sufficiently warmed the hearts of the audience as they trudged into the cold Canton night.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On the Artist's Life and Finding a Voice

On the Artist’s Life and Finding a Voice
By Tom Wachunas

“Originality is a relative destination, and never only about a one-time arrival at utter newness. You get there by intention, through whatever means you choose to borrow, steal, or were imparted to you by someone else, and hard work. Always, hard work. Once there, you discover that it is a transient place, and not all that different from those you passed through along the way.” - June Godwit –

You can file this one as ‘inspired-by-but-having-nothing-necessarily-to-do-with-specific-works-at-hand.’ The works in question are those by middle and high school students from six Northeast Ohio counties, currently on view in the 58th Annual Northeast Central Ohio Scholastic Art Awards and Exhibit, hosted by Kent State University Stark.

As a rule I have very rarely “reviewed” art by students this young. It’s not because their work doesn’t warrant comment, or that they haven’t “arrived” yet, but simply because I prefer delving into the work of artists who have committed to the ‘artist’s life’ (not to be confused with livelihood), and are seriously developing a post-collegiate, maturing body of work.

This year’s Scholastic Art Exhibit comes at a time when I find myself at a daunting crossroads in my own work as a visual artist, grappling with the unsettling realization that, with just a few exceptions, I’ve been remaking the same piece for too many years. Call it taking an inventory of ideas, tools, techniques, and materials. As I seem to have outgrown my methodology, my message will hopefully remain vibrant and relevant, and continue to beckon and beguile, while I choose a different path in ‘voicing’ it. The artist’s life is indeed one of great constancy, ever attentive to creative possibilities and evolving perceptions, and acquiring the wherewithal to best articulate them. In that sense I’ll always be a ‘student’ and feel a sense of solidarity with all practicing students, no matter their age.

And so it is that as I encountered this particular exhibit, I was caught up in considerations of a more ephemeral nature beyond just formal analysis, apprehension of beauty, or comparing the efficacy of one technique or content with another. I was in fact aware of many influences and methods present in the works of these students, and thrilled – even inspired - to be in the presence of such youthful creative giftedness and skill, much of it astonishing. To witness the appearance of hearty seedlings and the stretching of wings, as it were. To savor the evidence of visual languages in the early stages of forming unique voices.

As in past installments of this annual event, there are more than a few examples of figurative paintings and drawings that appear to be made with the aid of digital photo projections or related tracing methods. I could be wrong, but in those works, the anatomical features, including challenging perspectives and foreshortening, are too startlingly precise and accurate to make me think they were executed free-hand. Often, such pieces exude more theatricality than real drama, eschewing true emotional affect in favor of spiffy special effect. I admit to favoring looser, more visceral approaches, still notably personal and inventive in their own right, and there are plenty of those here.

And in the end, for those students who will choose to continue their artistic pursuits (and many will not), it will always come down to wrestling with personal decisions, through a lifetime of crossroads, as to the best methods for letting their voices consistently soar. It’s a life lived somewhere between crazy and courageous, but always sublime.

Photos: Top – “Stretched” by Olivia Cody, Aurora High School. Bottom – “Ebony and Ellie” by Sabrina McLaughlin, Jackson High School. On view through February 2 in the 58th Annual Scholastic Art Exhibit at Kent State University Stark in the Fine Arts Building and also in the Campus Center. Viewing hours in both buildings are Mon. – Thurs. 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday 8 a.m to 5 p.m.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pencil Precious

Pencil Precious
By Tom Wachunas

I can’t tell you how many times over the past 20 years of looking at art from this region that I’ve been numbed silly by traditional still life renderings. ‘Still’ indeed - safe, quiet, ordinary, uninspired. But I was reminded recently that there are notable exceptions and that, in the right hands, the genre can still entertain and tantalize.

The majority of the 28 colored pencil works by Sharon Frank Mazgaj currently on view (THROUGH JANUARY 31) at Malone University’s McFadden Gallery are of the still life variety. Compared to those, the five portraits included in the show, while sumptuous in their manipulation of light, perhaps betray too much dependence on photography, particularly in the specificity of the faces. The expressive smiles seem almost too frozen and perfect, too filtered through a mechanical lens.

This is not to say that Mazgaj doesn’t work from photographs to execute her still life subjects (or that there’s anything intrinsically wrong about working from photographs). But it would be inaccurate to label her simply a photorealist, or that her still life drawings look exactly like photos.

Even if she does use a camera, she’s managed to make her imagery both personal and often even transcendent. More than just ‘photographic’ likenesses, these pictures are alive with wondrously enhanced light while achieving a softly subtle but engaging surface interest, generated via meticulous layering and blending of hues in a wide variety of saturations. Not only a superbly generous colorist, Mazgaj is also a thoughtful composer of pictorial structure, often employing strong, contrasting diagonal configurations amid refreshing perspectives. Additionally, she’s a master at rendering diverse textures and surfaces, particularly with reflective glass and metal forms. “Vintage Ornaments” is a veritable symphony of sparkling orbs that takes you deep into an intricate microcosm of amorphous reflected shapes and detail. Call it a sort of performance art with pencil as the central character.

And speaking of characters, several of her pieces make a big point of including vintage dolls. While sometimes their appearances are elegantly integrated with surrounding objects, as in the stunning “Amberg & Sons Composition Doll, circa 1915,” and “Tea With Strawberry Jam Toast,” there are others where the figurines seem a little out of place and over-animated, as in “There’s Something Going On Here.” The three naked, eerily glowing baby dolls have an oddly conspiratorial look about them. Then again, who says that the time-honored practice of the still life HAS to be all solemnly familiar and silent? Sometimes it’s simply pleasurable to see gleeful visual mischief-making, where whimsy trumps gravitas.

Beyond the artist’s remarkable technical bravura, what resonates most here is a sense of bright intimacy and a memento sensibility that thrills the eye while warming the heart.

Photos: Top – “Lion; Florence, Italy” / Bottom – “Tammy’s Tea Time” by Sharon Frank Mazgaj, colored pencil, on view THROUGH JANUARY 31, at Malone University’s McFadden Gallery, located in the lower level of the Johnson Center, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dynamic Duo Delivers

Dynamic Duo Delivers
By Tom Wachunas

In many ways, the first performance (January 13) of the 2012 Chesapeake Energy Casual Series of chamber music concerts by members of the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was an unfolded love story. CSO principal cellist Michael DeBruyn joined with pianist Francesca Tortorello to deliver a program that began with staid tenderness and steadily progressed into an unfettered outpouring of passion.

From the opening strains of Ralph Vaughn William’s lovely Six Studies in English Folksong, the duo articulated a warm, balanced aural blend that effectively imbued the entire work with a sense of lilting affection. They certainly took to heart the composer’s stated desire that these very brief, sweetly melodic songs be “…treated with love.”

The second work on the program was Cesar Franck’s iconic and challenging Sonata in A Major. In contrast to the gentle simplicity of the evening’s first selection, this work, composed in 1886 as a wedding gift to violinist Eugene Ysaye, is a gripping “story” of amorous beguilement and sensuality. Fittingly, the duo rose to the occasion with impressive sonority and rapturous grace.

This performance was a genuine partnership in crisp virtuosity, and both DeBruyn and Tortorello played with a consistent ardor that was downright infectious. A seamless flow of give-and-take energy between them was particularly intense during the fiery second movement as they negotiated the intricate, cyclic thematic embellishments. Their skillful intertwining of whimsy and drama that characterizes the third movement took on an increasingly fluid and improvisatory feel. By the time they had completed the thunderous coda in the fourth movement – a powerfully ecstatic and triumphant ending – the clearly appreciative audience responded with mirthful applause.

Such emotional momentum was brought to even more soaring heights with the evening’s final work, Astor Piazzolla’s Le Grande Tango. Before taking his seat, DeBruyn made a point of removing his tie and placing it on the piano as Tortorello looked on approvingly. Or should I say…seductively? For this performance was quite simply among the most authoritative demonstrations of lusty technique melded with unleashed musical libido I’ve ever witnessed. Enthralling, syncopated sizzle. The duo became the dance.

The sheer intensity and unity of purpose so eloquently presented in this work (and for that matter the entire program) could easily make one think that these gifted artists were literally married to the material. It is a sense made all the more reasonable when considering that DeBruyn and Tortorello are husband and wife in real life. Call it a marriage made in music.
Information and Tickets for upcoming CSO concerts available at or by calling (330) 452 - 2094

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

(Re)Covering the Classics?

(Re)Covering the Classics?
By Tom Wachunas

What was once not so old is new again. Anderson Creative Gallery, first established just a few years ago in the downtown Canton arts district, has acquired a new name in this, a new year: Translations Art Gallery. The new LLC, owned and operated by Craig Joseph (curator of the former Anderson Creative Gallery), is currently showing “Required Reading,” an exhibition of works by 20 artists, 11 of them new to the space.

For those viewers who may have been reluctant to fully embrace past exhibits here that called for the careful, sometimes extensive reading of literary materials (and there have been several – all nonetheless excellent), don’t be too put off by this one. The “required” reading is on one level more about the show’s premise than its overt visual content. The artists were asked to choose a title from a list of required high school or college reading, and create a book cover/jacket for a new release of the classic. The results constitute a mixed bag ranging from the predictable (though not uninteresting) to the surprising.

Simplicity rules in Matthew Doubek’s mixed media collage “Moby Dick” – a compact, energetic rendering of this whale tale’s tail in splashy dive mode. Holly Atkinson’s collage called “Sorrow and Strawberries” (for Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”) is a digital collage portrait in a somewhat overbearing gold frame that nonetheless exudes an antique, fecund charm. Both Margy Vogt and Cheryl Henderson employ digital printing technology to great effect, respectively providing crisp, handsome packaging for “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Frankenstein.”

Not so handsome, but appropriately jarring, is “Literary Outlaw” by Dylan Atkinson. This wax and oil portrait of William S. Burroughs, author of “Naked Lunch” (1959), is rendered in muddy, jaundiced hues, and is at once repulsive and compelling. Like a ghostly mask, it seems to both rise from and sink into a gray void. Urgent, like death.

More quietly compelling, and ambitious in scale, is William M. Bogdan’s black and white (with a passage of green markings along the bottom) woodcut portrait of Walt Whitman – an homage to the poet’s “Leaves of Grass” collection. For all of Whitman’s heroic exaltation of human physicality, Bogdan’s meticulously-cut image presents the poet as fading in and out of sharp view. The blacks are inconsistently saturated (intentionally?), giving the image a ghostly incompleteness which, interestingly enough, imbues it with a gentle lyricism.

And lyricism (if not mystery) is very much at work in Ashley Barlow’s mixed media collage, “The Giver.” I’m not familiar with the Lois Lowry children’s novel of the same name. But it might involve misadventure in a monochromatic world, as indicated by Barlow’s wintery palette interrupted by a bright red sled tipped over at the bottom of a snow covered hill.

Maybe the idea behind Kevin Anderson’s arresting “The Tell-Tale Heart” is for his wall sculpture to be photographed for a book jacket. But then we’d miss his ingeniously incorporated mechanical effect of the changing photo images that flash by to suggest body parts seen between floor boards. It’s an eerie and elegant work that looks like it came from a 19th century parlor, and thus in keeping with the Gothic spirit of Edgar Allan Poe’s story.

Similarly, Tim Belden’s photo-assemblage light box - “One Hundred Years of Solitude” - is more about concept than actual, marketable book jacket. Still, as a purely visual object - and like Kevin Anderson’s piece, very thoughtful in its construction - it is particularly alluring in its cryptic combination of images and even inspiring, as in invitation to investigate its source.

I’m not at all familiar with Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the novel regarded as his masterpiece, a non-linear, “magical realist style” metaphorical narrative about Colombian history, originally published in Spanish in 1967. Even that bit of information comes only from Googling the title. And so it is that Belden’s piece represents an important aspect of this exhibit: illuminating art’s power to pique our curiosity and prompt expanded cognitive links between differing forms of expression.

Consequently I feel sufficiently tempted to find and read the novel (as is the case, for that matter, with “The Giver”). To better “judge” the efficacy of the cover by its book.

Photo, courtesy Translations Art Gallery: “Literary Outlaw” wax and oil, by Dylan Atkinson. On View through January 28 at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Hours 12 noon to 5 pm Wed. – Sat.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Body Eclectic

The Body Eclectic
By Tom Wachunas

The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred, no matter who it is, it is sacred –
- Walt Whitman, from “I Sing the Body Electric” –

“The body is a big sagacity, a polarity with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.”
- Friedric Nietzsche –

“Your body is a flower that life let bloom.” - Ilchi Lee –

Though some artists of the Abstract Expressionist ilk may howl their disagreement, I think one could make a very strong argument that there is no more potent and accessible vehicle for communicating the essence of humanity than the human form itself. The body - whether clothed or unclothed, idealized, symbolized, distorted, or otherwise rendered warts-n-all – appears in the art of all cultures and throughout time since (roughly) 25,000 BCE.

With the current exhibit called “Body Language,” the Canton Museum of Art is once again proving the impressive and surprising depth of its permanent collection. Featured here are works by 47 artists in a wild array of media and aesthetic styles – from the classically sublime to the thoroughly modern (including the downright funky). It’s a veritable sea of human forms, churning with all manner of gestures, postures, physical activities, and physiognomies. The show is every bit as purely “entertaining” as it is conceptually and emotionally gripping.

Speaking of gripping, Red Grooms’ silkscreen, “Mango, Mango” (rhymes with Tango, Tango), is a stunning, Pop-ish gem of composition and electrifying pattern design. The dancers look as if ready to step (or fall) right out of the picture plane. Meanwhile, in “Steppin Out,” a life-size porcelain sculpture by Verne Funk, the two slender Deco dancers in black, white, and gray are ingeniously fused together into a tight embrace.

Among many other personal favorites, here are just a few more: Thomas Hart Benton’s lithograph, “Island Hay,” a haunting and dramatic depiction of rural field workers; Kathe Kollwitz’s equally dramatic etching, “March of the Weavers” – the angry poor seemingly about to rise up into a blank yet oddly crushing sky; the quiet dignity and melancholy conveyed in Rockwell Kent’s lithographs; an eerily beautiful ceramic wall piece called “Lithe Diver” by Beverly Mayeri – a floating male swimmer, stretched out and evenly sliced into many pieces (as in filleting a fish?); the surreal hilarity and intricate workmanship in both Janis Mars Wunderlich’s earthenware sculpture “Puppy Queen,” and Mark Soppeland’s mixed media sculpture, “Concerned With Many Issues”; and the controlled, yet fluid, muscular brushwork in Jerome Witkin’s huge (66”x96”) oil painting, “Lockhart” – a portrait set in a marvelously complex interior space.

On your way into the upper gallery to see this show, be sure to notice the four important works on paper that were recently added to the Museum’s Permanent Collection (now numbering more than 1,600 works). These latest pieces are currently on view in the Museum lobby, but will likely not be up for the duration of “Body Language,” which closes March 4. WHAT FOLLOWS HERE IS REPRINTED FROM THE MUSEUM”S PRESS RELEASE REGARDING THE NEW ACQUISITIONS.

William Sommer, “U.S. Mail” (diptych), 1938, watercolor on paper, 35 7/8” x 20 7/8”, purchased in memory of John Hemming Fry. American Modernist painter, William Sommer (1867-1949), was a leader of The Cleveland School – a group of Cleveland-based artists active through the 1940’s. Sommer was unemployed and near destitute, until his situation improved in the mid 1930’s with commissions from the Works Progress Administration. Sommer began using his modernist style to depict the simple country life he enjoyed in Brandywine, Ohio; a rural community midway between Cleveland and Akron. U.S. Mail is a large composition combining transparent and opaque watercolor techniques -- a masterpiece of the medium, also demonstrating Sommer’s skill at adapting the aesthetic of WPA mural painting to the watercolor medium.

Lowell Tolstedt, “Blue Table with Plate of Cherries”, 2011, colored pencil on paper, 29” x 39”, purchased in memory of Edward A. and Rosa J. Langenbach. What Lowell Tolstedt achieves with colored pencil defies belief. Tolstedt (1939- ), a retired Columbus College of Art & Design professor, is known for his exquisite photo-realistic drawings of everyday objects. Given the association of realistic still life with old masters of the 17th or even mid 19th century, the very characteristics that make a work of art realistic in style and still life in genre are often the same characteristics that keep a work entrenched in tradition. But Tolstedt’s work is thoroughly modern – with the simple subject of placing fruit on a plate, he generates a playful tension with his realistic exploration of shape and texture.

Jim Dine – “Untitled (Hearts)”, 1976, watercolor, 16” x 20”, purchased in memory of the Luntz family. American Pop Artist, Jim Dine, grew up in Cincinnati, attended Ohio University then moved to New York in 1959. Dine’s roots as a painter lie in Abstract Expressionism, reflected in his brushy and gestural finish. Working with Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein, Dine’s work moved from Abstract Expressionist towards Pop Art. In this genre he is an American icon and a great addition to the collection of the Canton Museum of Art.

Hughie Lee-Smith – “Industrial Scene”, 1953, watercolor, 15 ½” x 22 ¼”, purchased in memory of Austin Lynch and Mary K. Lynch. Hughie Lee-Smith is one of the most highly acclaimed African American artists to have begun his career in Cleveland. He painted the crumbling inner cities of Detroit and Cleveland. Lee-Smith struggled against the tide of Abstract Expressionism while adhering to his distinctive style, hauntingly enigmatic and sometimes described as Romantic Realism.

Photos courtesy Canton Museum of Art: Top – “Mango, Mango,” by Red Grooms. Bottom – “Island Hay” by Thomas Hart Benton. On view in “Body Language” THROUGH MARCH 4 at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N. in Canton. (330) 453 - 7666